Peeking in the crystal ball: 3 big predictions for sales in 2021

Posted December 10, 2020

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By Anna Baird

Chief Revenue Officer at Outreach

Revenue teams in every industry are still adjusting to the disruptions of a volatile year — missed quotas, significant shifts in strategies, and millions of outside sales reps moving inside.

We know 2021 will not usher in a miraculous return to “normal.” The recovery poses longer-term challenges, especially for sales organizations.

But we also know the best go-to-market teams are those that choose to make the best out of a messy situation. 2021 presents major growth opportunities for organizations that can adapt and learn from the lessons this year taught us.

I recently sat down with two experts on leading organizations through transformational changes: Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach, and Hilary Headlee, head of sales operations and enablement at Zoom. We talked through what we believe will be the biggest opportunities for go-to-market teams in 2021— and how progressive organizations can pivot to take advantage of these shifts.

1. Go-to-market teams won’t win without managing buyer sentiment

Science has shown that buyers buy based on emotion but justify their decisions with logic. Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, for example, has written that 95 percent of all decisions — including purchasing decisions — begin in the subconscious mind. Essentially, customers are not fully aware of why they choose to buy what they buy.

The takeaway for sales organizations in 2021 is that they need to find new ways to identify, measure, and respond to customers’ emotive signals. Your sales playbook and messaging, for example, need to adapt to buyer sentiment and look beyond outdated metrics (such as open rates and email replies) and leverage new technology and data-driven insights to get ahead.

“Sellers are getting smart about how to engage with a buyer and earn their trust,” Manny said. “You have to have a meaningful conversation that leads to a relationship that then leads to a purchase. If you’re not measuring the emotive outcome of your buyer, you’re not playing with a full deck of cards.”

To that point, one of our customers had been documenting all customer objections in a Google document so they could address those objections upfront. That is a great start, but they quickly realized technology would improve their process. For instance, Outreach Insights with Buyer Sentiment Analysis can capture buyer emotions and signals to more accurately measure sales engagement than activity-based metrics.

In fact, our Outreach data science team recently found that 40 percent of sales leaders mistake a lower-performing Sequence for a higher one when they rely only on reply rates to measure performance. By prioritizing Sequences based on positive buyer sentiment instead of reply rate, sales reps can book 14 percent more meetings.

With headcounts declining in most sales organizations, it is critical to implement advanced digital tools to make your sales reps dramatically more efficient. AI is the key enabler here, and while we are early in the process of recognizing how it will transform sales, in 2021, it is likely to be a game-changer.

2. B2B buyers will demand focused, curated experiences

Consumers have already discovered the power of personalization. Today, a retail website is likely to greet you by name, suggest products that might interest you based on past purchases, remember your clothing sizes and other preferences, and more.

B2B buyers are now demanding that same level of attention.

“Do people take the time to read my LinkedIn profile to understand what I’m passionate about?” Hilary said. “Do they understand the challenges I’m trying to overcome? If they take that step, I’m more confident about taking that first meeting.”

As digital buying experiences continue to dominate in 2021, your reps need to lean more heavily on technology to learn about buyers and develop customer relationships that pay off.

Account-based marketing (ABM) has already been critical in making these kinds of connections easier. Going forward, marketing teams will find it challenging to feed leads into the sales funnel without a strong ABM strategy in place. For example, companies with mature ABM programs can attribute 73 percent of overall revenue to ABM, according to Terminus’s report.

In 2021, the trick will be to scale this technology to increase selling volume. But your messaging needs to be finely tuned to help you break through the noise. It’s not enough to personalize for personalization’s sake.

Once they started tracking buyer sentiment, many of our customers were shocked to find that their personalization efforts were actually driving objections and unsubscribes. A well-intentioned rep can send the most carefully personalized email — but all that matters is how well it lands with your buyer.

Succeeding requires patience, too, as the sales cycles get longer and more complex. You will not be able to simply feed money into the top of the funnel and expect sales to materialize. The sales experience must be individually curated for each market and each persona, with your business carefully differentiated against the competition.

There is no time to waste, either, since the pandemic has also back-burnered a lot of long-term corporate planning. Strategic plans for Fortune 200 companies, according to TOPO research, now typically top out at 90 to 120 days.

Sales cycles may be getting longer, but decision-maker expectations of time to value have become extremely short. Most customers we talk to today want to see evidence of the immediate value our solution will bring their team. Sales teams need to change the conversation to deliver a differentiated experience in a faster way.

That means they must fully embrace focused experiences and relationship-building to work effectively within a short window.

3. Sales reps will become micro-community managers

Speaking of relationship-building, 2021 presents a bigger challenge to the reps who rely on the energy of in-person events to make valuable connections.

There are no trade shows to attend, no hands to shake, no fortuitous encounters with ideal customers — and this likely will not change for the foreseeable future. Traditional networking may no longer seem recognizable, but smart go-to-market teams adapt by changing the way they bring people together.

One way to create value for your buyers is to introduce them to other contacts they may find interesting or useful. Success in the near future depends on making connections that people need and want — without asking for anything in return.

“People are overwhelmed,” Hilary said. “Being kind, clear, and precise can go a long way.”

By connecting your customers with other interesting people, you gain credibility and goodwill.

Sales changed forever this year, and the jobs sales reps were hired for no longer exist. Reps need tenacity, grit, and resilience to succeed in the new year.

“Either you’re building a relationship or trying to get a transaction done,” Manny said. “Your time is limited as a seller, so it’s going to be a tough year.”

The good news for 2021: Businesses will continue buying — and in many sectors, sales have already jumped dramatically. Stay focused on results by exciting and energizing your people and educating them about the positive possibilities to come. This effort will be critical to your team’s mental health in what promises to be an exciting year ahead.


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